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Year-ender: 2016 health care news in the year of post-truth

Year-ender: 2016 health care news in the year of post-truth

We will publish three blog posts this week about 2016 health care news.

Since the Oxford Dictionaries chose post-truth as its word of the year, my 2016 year-ender explores how the term applies to health care journalism and PR news releases.


The Oxford folks define the term as follows:

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

End of Year 2016Yep, it fits a lot of what we saw in health care news and PR in 2016.  Perhaps the leading category? Celebrities often help shape public opinion with emotion and personal belief trumping facts.

Like actor/comedian Ben Stiller’s unproven and unprovable claim that a PSA blood test for prostate cancer saved his life. Some organizations promote prostate cancer screening with misleading events even without celebrities.
Non-evidence-based health promotions by celebrities Marisa Tormei, Kim Kardashian, and others.
Even more celebrity health hawking by singer Sheryl Crow.
What happened when journalists swam right along with an Olympic swimmer into the shallow end of the fact pool.
What happened when two fact-challenged sources – Donald Trump and Dr. Oz – met.
What happens sometimes when politicians talk about health care – including their own.
A guest blogger wrote about cancer miracle mongering.

This year-ender becomes an annual report of sorts to you, our readers.  The examples above just help drive home the point of why our work is needed.  We are the only project in the U.S. that evaluates such messages every day.

Highlights of our work this year

New tools added to help patients/consumers improve their critical thinking:

We updated and expanded our Toolkit with tips for analyzing studies, medical evidence and health care claims
And, just for journalists (although the general public can benefit from this as well), we added new tips and case studies for writing about health care.
We completed our one-year pilot production of podcasts, producing 25 in a year.  My favorites were the ones with patients telling stories of how they were harmed by misleading media messages (Episodes 13, 15, 17, 20 and 21 on this index page.) There will be renewed podcast production in 2017.  Stay tuned.

Traffic:  a whopping 67% increase over last year’s previous best annual total.  We built it and you came and kept coming. Pageviews have increased about 50% from last year to this year.

All of our web and social media metrics are way up.  More web searchers are finding us more often, with our organic search traffic doubling from last year to this year.  Facebook followers have roughly tripled from last year to this year. On Twitter this year we have more than doubled our average engagement, tripled our average link clicks and nearly tripled the number of our articles that are retweeted by others. All of this has happened organically and without any spending on promotion.

>550 reviews & blog posts published.  We published our 5,000th article this year (!) and also our 5,000th Tweet.  46% of our articles have been systematic criteria-driven news story reviews, 48% have been blog posts, and the remaining 6% have been systematic criteria-driven PR news release reviews.  We only began doing those PR reviews in 2015.  That number is growing every day.

Great team: now 50 editorial contributors.  The most recent additions are:

Jill Adams –  veteran health and science journalist who is also a board member of the National Association of Science Writers and a contributor to The Science Writers’ Handbook.
Clarissa Diamantidis, MD — A Duke University nephrologist who’s interested in mobile technologies for patient care and is also focused on patient safety and health disparities in kidney disease.
Allison Dostal, PhD, RD – A University of Minnesota dietitian who can help us take on the flurry of nutrition-related claims we see on a daily basis.
Mary Chris Jaklevic – health care journalist who has served on the board of the Association of Health Care Journalists, where she led its Right to Know Committee and edited Covering Obesity: A Guide for Reporters.
Michael Joyce, MD – a Mayo-trained physician who has transitioned into multimedia journalism.  Michael starts with us in January as our 4th full time editorial staffer.
Paul Levin, MD – Vice Chairman of the Department of Orthopedics at Montefiore Medical Center and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine who focuses on the non-operative management of common musculoskeletal conditions and fractures.
Preeti Malani, MD, MSJ – Professor of Medicine at the University of Michigan and Associate Editor at JAMA who also got her master’s degree in journalism.  She bring the perspective of an academic author, journal editor, reporter, media relations team member, and an avid reader of health news.
Ann Miller, PhD — Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Central Florida, who uses our project as a teaching tool in her classes.
Virginia Moyer, MD – Our first pediatrician-reviewer who is Vice President for Maintenance of Certification and Quality at the American Board of Pediatrics. Dr. Moyer is also a former member (2002-2008) and chair (2011-2014) of the US Preventive Services Task Force.
Alan Schroeder, MD – Another pediatrician whose research focuses on areas where we can “safely do less.” He’s the associate chief for research in the division of pediatric hospital medicine at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford.
Kim Walsh-Childers, PhD — A former newspaper health reporter who has taught at the University of Florida since August 1990. Her research focuses on news coverage of health issues.
Ed Ward, MD — A hospitalist in Minnesota who contacted us about becoming involved as an occasional reviewer because, in his words, he’s “become interested in the paucity of scientific evidence that underlies much of medical practice.”

More than a dozen workshops or presentations by me or managing editor Kevin Lomangino, including:  at the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) annual conference in Cleveland; another AHCJ workshop in DC sponsored by the National Cancer Institute; at the Preventing Overdiagnosis conference in Barcelona; for National Institutes of Health communications directors in Bethesda, Maryland; at the Institute for  Clinical Systems Improvement Colloquium in Minneapolis; at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development/Harding Center for Risk Literacy, Berlin; at the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation; and at the PRIM&R (Public Responsibility in Medicine & Research) Advancing Ethical Research conference in Anaheim, CA.

Our work was cited, quoted or profiled in nearly 100 media mentions of various types in 2016.

Our runaway #1 article – in terms of number of readers – was a guest post almost exactly one year ago by Dr. Michael Wilkes entitled, “Opdivo and the reality of stage IV cancer treatment.” He wrote this to help people who had seen all of the Opdivo television commercials to apply critical thinking to the claims in those ads.  True to our post-truth theme, Wilkes wrote:

In the advertisements, the use of superlatives – words like “breakthrough”, “game changer” or “something this big” — that exaggerate the benefits of a drug, images that suggest greater benefits than can actually be achieved, and videos that tug on the heart strings of the viewer all suggest that if you don’t try the drug being promoted, you aren’t really trying your hardest.

A followup blog post – by Harold DeMonaco – asked, “Where are the TV ads to educate patients about the negative Opdivo lung cancer trial?”

Americans are flooded daily by tsunami of misleading claims

The point of all of these examples – and the reason we’ve done this work every day for nearly 11 years on this project – is that patients and consumers are commonly misled by media messengers (in news, PR, advertising, marketing, sometimes even medical journals).  Research, ideas, products are “spun” to appear in the most positive light.  Potential benefits are emphasized or exaggerated.  Potential harms are minimized or totally ignored,  People are not given the tools to evaluate the quality of the evidence.

We think we provide those tools in the way we evaluate such media messages and such claims.

Tomorrow on our blog, managing editor Kevin Lomangino provides a 2016 recap of those PR news release reviews.  The next day – Thursday – deputy managing editor Joy Victory will give us a yearlong recap of the systematic news story reviews.

Note:  you may want to listen to this year-end public radio program in which I’m interviewed by physician, writer, and Oklahoma University-Tulsa president Dr. John Schumann.

Give buttonFinally, it’s our last chance this year to ask you to support our efforts with a donation.  This link takes you to a secure University of Minnesota Foundation website, where you can make a donation with a credit card, or use this mail-in form to send a check if you prefer. (Specify the HealthNewsReview.org fund #20804) All donations go directly to the operation of this project, which accepts no advertising and is 100% dependent on philanthropic support.  Thank you.


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